The Basement

by Ariana Kelly


The last home a carpenter finishes is his own, though he never really finishes it. My father built the basement first. We lived in it for ten years before he had enough money to build a house above it, in time for the birth of my brother. The house has remained partially sided, painted, and insulated for twenty-five years. Cedar siding periodically gives way to knotted plywood; scaffolding obscures the north face; and a deck wraps around three-quarters of the first floor and then free falls into nothing. Like its inhabitants, the house has been in a constant state of construction.

We lived on seventeen acres of undeveloped forest in central New Hampshire, with no neighbors to speak of, save the lights of a distant farm. The advertisement for the land described it as a high woodland tract and emphasized its possession of “good views of distant mountains” as well as “hundreds of cords of hardwood.” In the previous century, this acreage had been worked by farmers, as had much of the land in the surrounding town, until World War II took the farmers away and left the land to be reclaimed by the forest. So for two years, before building the basement, we chased the ghost of an old logging path, cutting stands of birch, elm, oak, and maple, carving a road through the forest that would eventually connect our property with Route 4, built in 1925, when the area was booming. We managed to clear one acre out of the seventeen, and the forest leaned up against the edges of the opening like a watchful elder. The only other people I remember seeing on the property besides my family are the people my father worked with: plumbers, electricians, framers and finish workers, plain spoken but physically articulate. Anyone else appeared in the form of letters and telephone calls, and when people stopped having enough money to make long distance calls, or the energy and time to write, they disappeared.

A basement is what allows houses and people to maintain their appearances. But what happens when the foundation becomes the house itself? The basement was half above-ground, half below, extending like a pier across a sloped sea of grass with a door that opened to the outside and a flat roof made of shingles and tarp. When it snowed heavily, the roof sank under the weight and the snow needed to be removed quickly, or the ceiling would collapse. My mother and I worked swiftly and silently against the falling snow and falling light, moving methodically towards each other from opposite sides of the roof, sweeping snow onto the ground in great heaping mounds. Sometimes she would furtively raise her head, like a threatened animal, and sweep me off the roof too because she believed vampires were near, a fear that arose from inhabiting an isolation so thorough it became supernatural. I never remember her wearing anything other than black, and when I asked her years later if she wore black totemically, as a preemptive strike against demons, she had no idea; to her it was simply an appropriate response to the life she found herself living.

A series of letters my father wrote to his parents as he and my mother were settling in New Hampshire reveal how elemental life was, largely determined by the exigencies of weather and money. In a letter from early May 1980, just as he was beginning to build the basement, my father writes, “Still no sign of work anywhere…I think the boom days for a great deal of the industry are over.” In the autumn of the same year, he noted the progress being made on the basement: “The cellar floor is the next big project. June and I have been creosoting all the joists.” The most pressing worry at the time was not money but water, the Upper Valley not having received “any significant amount of moisture” in more than twelve months. In a rare letter written by my mother a few months later, she describes a recent onset of rain: “It is good in one way in that it helps the water shortage we all have been having, but in another way it hasn’t been so welcomed…So many of the roads have been washed out that it literally means that there might be no way you can reach your home. Angus had to drive eighty miles out of his way to come home last night.” I could transpose these emergencies — droughts, unemployment, vanished roads — to where I live now, in Los Angeles, but they wouldn’t define the landscape in they way they did for my parents, who seemed to live with only the most insubstantial gauze separating them from total economic ruin. On Halloween 1981, the basement was on the cusp of being finished. My father writes, “By the second weekend of November we should be in our own house…I almost have to pinch myself! I can’t believe we are this close.”

Two years later, after we had moved into the basement, the harshness of the weather and the comparative flimsiness of the shelter were taking their toll: “I honestly don’t know what else we are going to have to put up with this winter,” my father writes. “We just came through the second coldest January in the state’s history. Three and a half weeks of below-zero temperatures…There has not been much time for anything else but plowing and shoveling snow. The basement almost looks like a natural contour of the land it is so buried.” Later in the same letter, my father gives thanks for what he can, namely that he will have carpentry work through the spring and is not yet “one of the casualties as the result of our dear Mr. Reagan.” The letters go on in this vein, with a couple of tidbits about how I am progressing or the odd movie, but mostly circling back to work, finding it, keeping it, losing it.

It’s hard to explain how much these letters matter to me, or even what they mean. My grandfather saved them and my aunt gave them to me a few years after my grandfather died. They are the primary documents of my own early history, along with two photo albums containing the only photos my parents ever took of themselves and me as a young family. As a teenager and college student I spent long hours pouring over those faded prints and Polaroids, staring at the Edenic portraits of my parents sitting dreamily in tall grass in a park, or working on the basement. At some point I asked for those photo albums, which also included snapshots of my mother’s brother before he died, and at some other point — in moving gradually westward, first to Colorado, then to Utah, Washington and, finally, California, I lost them. That those letters survived the past forty or forty-five years, that they were carefully stewarded through time so that I could have them, means as much or more to me than the content, which is partly the product of the books my parents brought with them from the suburbs: the collected works of Thoreau, Lopez, Abbey, Ginsberg, Snyder, Kerouac, the entirety of the Foxfire series as well as The Gulag Archipelago, The Tropic of Cancer, a smattering of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, The Rubaiyat, The Sand County Almanac, Them. I have found similar collections in other households, although not, notably, in any of the households of other people who lived in that area. It was a library shaped by the aspirations and concerns of people who came of age in the late sixties. That reading these books was at least part of what led my parents to forge their own particular breed of isolation in some of the least forgiving landscape in the country is a causality one tends to find more often in America than elsewhere.

New Hampshire was the first of the thirteen colonies to separate from Britain, the ninth to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and the first to have its own state constitution. And yet, its colonists had not arrived with a political or religious mandate; neither were they led by a charismatic leader like John Winthrop. Rather, they were adventurers and opportunists, individuals looking for new possibilities and clean slates. Midway between the White Mountains and the paper mills of the north and the urban densities of the south, central New Hampshire was settled by people who wanted to keep the wall between them as they went. They were not interested in experimental living; they were interested in surviving. Many were hunters; many were poor; most were living in houses in various stages of construction. If I wanted to inhabit some place complete, I went to a book.

As rich as Rome in ruins, at least for a certain temperament, the area is better characterized by traces of former greatness than evidence of current progress or future possibility. The industrial decline has been long and painful, all the more so because the people who remain have very little in the way of skills to offer an information economy. Their inclination is to not do much, or move away. Cradled in the valley of the Smith River, the region had once prospered by virtue of its mining, agriculture and timber industries, and by being a station on the Northern railroad, but by the time my parents bought their property in the late seventies, the mines had closed, the fields gone fallow and the mills moved further north. In 1982, the Great Northern Railroad run on a thousand cords of wood per month, was closed for good. Since World War II, when the government stopped stockpiling minerals and military service had required many to give up their farms, much of the town had been reclaimed by the forest. It wasn’t so much untouched by modernity as passed over.

A labyrinth of dirt roads that once connected all of the farms in the town now connects disparate patches of forest. Abandoned properties trail off like unfinished sentences, evidence of a kind of rural exodus, cars and buildings gradually decomposing like deadfall back into the ground from which they came. Monuments are sparse, conferred only by time and infamy. My friend and I used to joke that the cemetery was the most densely populated part of the place. Someone was paid to take care of it, though, and its perpetually trim grass and fresh flowers stood in stark contrast with the unkempt nature of everything around it. People moved here to flee corruption, not fight against it, and years of that kind of escapism have left the town in a peculiar state of stasis. It is a landscape utterly devoid of idealism and yet full of ideology. Live free or die, as the state motto commands.

Since 2001, when Jason Sorens, now a professor of political science at University at Buffalo-SUNY, suggested that like-minded libertarians should move to a state with small population and take control of the government, this motto has been given new life. “Once we’ve taken over the state government, we can slash state and local budgets, which make up a sizeable proportion of the tax and regulatory burden we face every day,” Sorens wrote in a manifesto for the journal Libertarian Enterprise. “Furthermore, we can eliminate substantial federal interference by refusing to take highway funds and the strings attached to them. Once we’ve accomplished these things, we can bargain with the national government over reducing the role of the national government in our state. We can use the threat of secession as leverage to do this.” With its small population and libertarian-friendly history, in 2003 New Hampshire was voted as the best destination for the Free Staters, with Wyoming a close second. Since its inception, over sixteen thousand self-identified libertarians have declared their intent to move. Still, if you’re not born here, it’s hard to end up here.

The poet and essayist Donald Hall lives in a town adjacent to where I grew up, as did Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, before she died. Hall inherited the ancestral farmhouse where he spent summers as a boy, moving there with Kenyon in 1975. Each writes with a degree of sparseness, something granitic at their cores capturing the way in which joy and pain in this part of the world are equally endured. “Though I loved the bright flowery borders and the white paint of the farmhouse,” Hall writes in his essay “A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails,” “I was always aware that New Hampshire was more dead than alive. Walking in the dense woods, I learned to be careful not to fall into cellar holes.”

Even in 1961, when the essay was published, Hall writes about New Hampshire as a “dying place,” focusing on the eccentric life of Washington Woodward. A hardworking, skillful man, Woodward had the kind of rural competence that allowed him to shoe a horse as well as he could make a gun. Woodward lives most of his life alone in a shack of his own construction, all of his competence and ingenuity, according to Hall, not amounting to anything at his death but a “hundred thousand straightened nails.” Visiting Woodward at his nursing home a few weeks before his death, Hall writes, “The waste he hated, I thought, was through him like blood in his veins. He had saved nails and wasted a life.”

Hall finds Woodward’s refusal to engage damning, and yet the vividness of his recollection of Woodward’s life and skills suggests something closer to admiration. Woodward built his own life, living and dying on his own eccentric, polemical terms. In contrast to the disposable culture we live in now, Woodward’s straightened nails could be read less as the useless remains of an eccentric than moving efforts at preservation. But should that immense aptitude have been directed to something else besides straightening bent nails, something that could have been used and appreciated by other people? Disconnecting from one’s community is a personal choice, of course, but it ends up having social implications. I think of the lives my parents have made, nearly forty years on the same piece of isolated property, and of what their legacy is and will be. I think of the unfathomable amount of time my mother has spent alone, how much she has read, and of the house my father built, in which I lived only briefly before I left for boarding school, how far flung I am and yet how, turn as I will, my step is toward it, or rather, the building of it. For me, home is embodied less by completion than construction.

At this point, it’s the details of the house that need fleshing out: back splashes, trim-work, closet doors, tiling, railings — the shades of the sentence that give the sentence character. As the house stills to a halt, becoming what it will, I wonder what it indicates about its inhabitants, past and present, what it will be able to indicate when it is no longer ours. In contrast to England, half of whose literature seems to revolve around houses and estates, houses and estates being ready extensions of character, America has always found more value in the act of leaving one house for something larger and ostensibly nicer. Fewer and fewer houses remain in a family for more than a generation. They are not passed down, the spectral remains of past residents lingering in coffee stains, table scratches and measurement markers, to children and grandchildren. When my parents leave I will have no reason to return.

We placed lawn chairs at one end of the basement and a picnic table at the other. In lieu of walls, we hung tapestries, cheap cotton cloth printed with paisley meant to suggest the spiritual elevations of India. In the autumn and winter we cut and stacked wood. Eight cords equalled twenty stacks, six months, the winter buried within the winter. During the summer we strung a clothesline down the length of the ceiling, pinning to it drying strands of rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, and lavender that shed leaves like confetti anytime anyone moved. Sometimes I think we made of that forest a wild place — wilder than it already was — lighting it with cigarette embers and sage, letting Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks spin out through open windows, beyond the roof, beyond the treetops, into the sky while we sank into our respective solitudes.

In the final stages of building the house, ten years later, my father needed to tear the tarp off the basement roof in order to lay the first floor. As soon as he did, torrential rains fell for two weeks, the rains which half-drowned us every summer. Pink insulation drooped like bearded moss from wooden joists. Where once herbs had hung, cascades of water now fell, collected first in pots and then drained through holes we drilled into the plywood floor. One morning I woke up hearing what sounded like water lapping at the shore. My parents were furiously, silently bailing, squatting against the mildewed walls I had requested be painted pink. In the flood we lost food, clothes, books, tools, bedding. We lost records, photos, instruments, people. We lost everything and then we lost the basement itself. But by that time, the foundation for the basement’s reconstruction had been laid, and it had been laid within me.